by Reid Bryant
The perpetual search for the perfect mate
First published in Shooting Sportsman Magazine Nov/Dec 2012
I have a gun for sale. It’s nothing of great value, at least not in the scope of double guns, but it represents hours of labor on the part of the craftsmen who built it and on the part of the 20-something kid who hardened his hands in odd jobs to pay it off. It’s a 16-gauge on a 20’s frame, with side-by-side barrels and a knockout piece of wood, and it was built with me in mind. And here I am, looking to move it along.
I’ve come to realize in the beginnings of middle age that the acquisition of guns is a pursuit all its own, independent of upland days or targets broken on the clays course. Guns have come through my hands for years, and few have tarried long, though not for lack of best intentions. It’s simply that choosing a gun is somewhat akin to choosing a spouse, and something deeper than the pragmatic must ring true. Thus, I find myself still looking, considering that one perfect shotgun that waits quietly out there somewhere.
My love of guns came long before I ever even owned one, when my ideals were much less refined. My very first romance was with a mail-ordered reproduction of a “Kaintucky” flintlock that shot nothing more potent than paper caps. It was a beauty, though, and I lusted after it for months before my parents buckled. I think of it still with the adoration of a boy, and I remember well the details of its beauty. The machine-etched lockwork, the sweep of the Taiwanese barrel, the gouged pine stock stained to a walnut luster; it was all sheer poetry. I toted it devotedly through the wilds of suburban Boston where together, from the shelter of the privet hedge, we laid siege to a migration of lawyers and I-bankers en route home from the commuter rail stop. Had we been armed with anything more deadly than sulfurous smoke, the wheels of capitalist Boston would undoubtedly have ground to a halt.
But as with any boyhood romance, the promise of something more dangerous inevitably proved my undoing. Amidst the dog-eared pages of my Service Merchandise catalog, I identified the most powerful air gun then made by the Crosman company, and of course I had to have it. It was a long time coming. My mother’s concession on the BB gun front was the hard-won coincidence of several well-timed tantrums, a string of perfect report cards, and the waffling of a father who, despite his peaceable ways, had hunted merrily as a kid. In turn, one birthday morning there waited at my bedside the most glorious and deadly piece of workmanship a boy was ever to receive.
In the years that followed, I littered the neighborhood with BBs. To my credit, I was never one to wantonly kill, and the bulk of my targets were made of ornamental glass. I lived across the street from my elementary school, and more than once I whistled a casual hallway tune as the janitors scratched their heads over chips in the art-room windows. The little Crosman, with a full charge of air, was capable of a whopping 720-fps muzzle velocity (or so the literature claimed). Experimentation proved that such power at a range of 20 feet would break the windowpanes of my mother’s shingled garden shed but would only disfigure the windshield glass of a neighbor’s car. That said, the single greatest piece of wingshooting I ever saw was the work of the Crosman and my friend Andrew Wild, who shot a bumblebee clean in two from my bedroom window. The poor critter divided neatly but continued to endeavor an animated escape, relieved of the weight of its rear half.
In adulthood I turned to shotguns and entered into a love affair that may well prove my undoing. Early on I became the owner of two much-coveted family heirlooms that I soon realized were complete dogs. Let me first say, if it weren’t already apparent, that my family was not what you’d call “gun friendly.” There were no hunters, or at least admitted hunters, in my childhood environs, and my father, under the strict direction of my mum, agreed that no guns—no real guns—would ever enter the house. Hence, like the child raised on a diet of wheat germ and tofu, my 18th birthday marked an entrée into the land of free will, and I gorged myself on forbidden fruit. Straightaway I made for my grandfather’s home, where he bestowed on me the two shotguns that years before he’d agreed to hand down at the sanctioned time. No greater sense of owner’s pride have I known since that day when, opening an out-of-the-way clothes cupboard, my grandfather handed me my birthright.
If only they’d been Purdeys.
When the initial glow subsided and I’d had the guns a few weeks, I saw them through clearer eyes. Both were impractical for the grouse hunting I’d just taken up, and neither possessed the charm or romance that made a gun worthy of an October day. Both were 12-gauge American guns, and both had been purchased in Hawaii just after the attack on Pearl Harbor. As an officer in the Navy, my grandfather had taken the guns in a special deal made to servicemen whereupon an arsenal of shotguns were offered at a price of $5 for a single-barrel, $10 for a double. The guns were a ragtag lot of weapons commandeered from the populous of mainland America, and they were pressed into action as a precaution against an infantry attack on the island state. Never one to be impressed by makes or models, my grandfather grabbed two guns from the stacks at random. The single was a nearly new Iver Johnson hammergun choked to the constriction of a gnat’s ass and, with a 32-inch barrel, unfit for any sporting enterprise I could imagine. The other—and the more graceful to my eye—was a wobbly Stevens 311 that was far enough off face to show a beam of autumn sunlight through. Not long after the great acquisition, I became of a mind to upgrade.
When you are a kid from a family without much tradition, you seek meaning where you can. I tried desperately to love that old Stevens. I shot clays with it, rubbed linseed into the stock, even looked into having it put back on face. But the more I read and the more I fancied myself the modern-day recapitulation of Burton Spiller, the more I knew that the die had been cast. In less than a year I moved both guns down the line and lumped the recompense with my summer wages so that I might join the upper echelon of double-gun enthusiasts. In keeping with New England tradition, my sights were set on the very best, the gun that separated sporting gentlemen from barnyard roustabouts. I cashed in my meager inheritance for a 16-gauge Parker VH.
To my way of thinking, at least at the time, simply possessing a Parker promised to double my annual haul of grouse and woodcock. Hell, I figured that my pretty little side-by-side would toll the birds onto the tips of my gun barrels and I’d leave the Vermont hillsides littered with spent shells and grouse feathers. Only days after its arrival, I took the Parker to the local skeet range, that I might wipe the eyes of the local farmers who’d handily out-shot me, with snub-nosed autoloaders no less, all summer long. I assumed my station and looked down at the beautiful bit of American history balanced in my hands. Dropping a cartridge into each chamber, I called to the trapper and proceeded to let loose a volley of No. 8s. At the second shot a hollow pop and lingering cloud issued forth across the skeet field, and my neighbors looked over in horror. Just forward of my thumb, the left barrel had torn open in a six-inch gash of paper-thin steel. I looked at the Parker, the realization of a dream, broken and smoking in my hands.
Back home, with a few belts of whiskey settling my nerves, I conducted the post-mortem. I knew that I hadn’t doubled up cartridges, and the barrels in no way had been obstructed. Apparently, a previous owner had honed a dent from the left barrel, leaving the wall as thin as parchment, and in my enthusiasm to get the gun home I’d never asked that the barrels be mic’d. On that sad, late-summer evening, I kissed my fair Parker goodbye. I’d retained my thumb but lost a coveted gun—and my inheritance besides. I guess you could say that the demise of the Parker was the beginning of the end.
I truly believed, and I sometimes do still, that the little Parker might have been my lifelong companion. It was beautiful, hard earned and of a pedigree that befit my aesthetics. With it destroyed, a procession of superficial relationships tumbled down through the years as I tried, to paraphrase Stephen Stills, to “love the one I was with.” There were other Parkers, a big old L.C. Smith Grade 2 and a near-mint sidelock Lefever. There was the “Spanish period,” when Arrietas and AyAs manifested like smoky-eyed mistresses in my New England coverts. There was the 12-gauge Superposed that I bought the day before my first dog was killed and the Ruger Red Label, a mirror of all the others down at the club, that I shot better than I care to admit.
But shotguns, as I’ve said, become as personal—and as intimate—as lovers. They define themselves through an enigmatic weight in the hands, a liveliness, a feeling of indescribable “rightness.” And as I looked, bought, sold and bought again, barely within the permission of my income, that magic simply never emerged. And so, just before I was married, I took what I thought would be the other big plunge: I purchased a gun made just for me. After all, what better way to ensure that I wound up with the perfect mate?
Harkening back to my Crosman years, it all began with the research. I wanted a light side-by-side 16, something with wood to drool over and engraving cut by hand. More than anything, I wanted something singular, something unique to my temperament, my aesthetic and my idea of all an upland gun should be. I also was not blind to the fact that dreams are not realized without good hard work, and guns made-to-order don’t come cheap. So I stretched to afford what I thought was the best and the most distinctive, and I hoped that during the waiting period I’d make up the last couple of thousand. I did, but ended up emptying my whole life savings into the deal.
The gun was a Poli, imported at the time by Cole Gunsmithing of Harpswell, Maine. Rich Cole was a kind and gentle guide, and he got from the Poli family all that I asked for and more. It remains a light, long-barreled boxlock with glorious, hand-cut foliate scroll. The wood is to die for, and the action, though somewhat unexceptional in shape, is well sculpted and clean; the finish is wonderful. On that long-ago day I handed Rich my check and drove home with the gun, I slept with it leaned up by my bed. It was far and away the most long-awaited and most expensive indulgence of my life, and I was somewhat unsure how to proceed. In the end I took it shooting, and I have done so in all the years since.
But of course there is more to the story.
I’ve shot pheasants and grouse and woodcock with the Poli, and I’ve wiped it lovingly after every use. I’ve shot clays by the bushel and with fair success, and I’ve shouldered the gun on winter nights when October seemed a long way away. I’ve shot the gun over one dog who is now only ashes, over another who’s just coming on, and alongside friends who’ve grown too old to beat the brush any more. Through it all, though, and I can’t tell you why, the gun has never seemed quite right. Perhaps it lacks the patina of years, the accumulation of memories soaked into walnut. Perhaps it lacks the legacy of something loved and handed down, tumbling through the generations to build a pedigree of dings and scuff marks. Maybe it’s simply that the gun is too crisp, too clean and bright for a hunter as clearly imperfect as myself. Whatever the reason, the Poli, the beautiful gun built just for me, has never been mine. Not fully. And so, with the years rolling by, I guess time has come to find a different partner. Time to let another noble attempt disappear out the door and strike up the conversation anew. The autumns of my life are too fleeting and the promise of guns just too lovely to make do with something less than absolutely right.
It’s harder now, with money going to children’s shoes and taxes and credit-card bills, to consider an indulgence as special as a double gun. To have a fine gun is a privilege I don’t take lightly and one I’ve worked hard to achieve. But again, in this first blush of middle age, I realize more fully my desire for that one gun—the gun that can share with me the joys and sorrows of a lifetime’s passage through the uplands. I want a gun that fits naturally against a backdrop of exquisite October color and one beautiful enough, and beloved enough, to be worthy of killing one of God’s perfect creatures.
Finally, I suppose, I want a gun that brings me back to the boyhood delight that knew only the bliss of slinking through the bushes in possession of something lovely and hazardous and decidedly, deliciously, my own.